Commencement season: Career and life launches yesterday and today

Screenshot from On The Set of New York site

Screenshot from On The Set of New York site

“When Harry Met Sally,” the 1989 romantic comedy starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and directed by Rob Reiner, easily makes my list of the top New York City movies. It’s like a great Woody Allen movie without the unease over Woody, blending endearing performances with classic Manhattan locations and musical standards performed by Harry Connick, Jr.

In fact, among the most nostalgic bumps for me are the opening scenes, when Harry and Sally meet up for the first time on the campus of the University of Chicago, following their graduation. A mutual friend has facilitated their shared drive to New York City, where they both are moving. They get to know each other during their trip and don’t exactly hit it off. They part company at Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village, not to see each other again for several years.

Now, I neither attended the University of Chicago nor shared a long car ride to New York with Sally Albright/Meg Ryan. But a year after graduating from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, I would leave for law school at New York University in Greenwich Village. So I can relate to the life transitions captured by Harry and Sally’s drive to New York.

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With the calendar turning to May, we are now approaching graduation season. Okay, so I’m not a big fan of commencement ceremonies. With notable exceptions (such as here and here), the speeches and remarks tend to be banal and forgettable.

But I have enjoyed those stretches of time that embrace endings and beginnings. I spent my final undergraduate semester in a life-changing study abroad program in England. I spent my final law school semester participating in several rewarding extracurricular activities, with a post-graduate job already awaiting my arrival. Being a nostalgic creature by nature, I can easily get soggy thinking of both.

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Increasingly, however, the making of these sentimental memories are the province of the more fortunate. The classic “college experience” became the American middle class ideal during the second half of the last century, but rising tuition levels have rendered it less of a reality today. During the past ten years, especially, heavy student debt and the entry-level job market have been understandably ratcheting up the anxieties of soon-to-be graduates. In essence, the supposed “blast-off years” of one’s early twenties are now loaded down with a lot of ballast.

With heavy student debt, unpaid internships, and the like, America has front loaded the costs of getting one’s start in life. Many culprits have contributed to this state of affairs. The higher education industry, our political and governmental infrastructures, corporate hiring practices, and student loan vendors — among other stakeholders — all share responsibility. Until we summon the collective will to change this state of affairs, higher levels of debt and anxiety will continue to accompany new graduates as they collect their diplomas on graduation day.

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job

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In “10 things I realized after I quit my job without a plan” (Business Insider), life coach and consultant Anna Lundberg shares her experience of walking away from a job and creating her own business:

In September 2013, I walked out of my office and into the unknown. . . . I emptied my apartment of seven years, put my boxes into storage, and moved into my parents’ guest room as I thought about my next move.

My intention since the start had been to create a more independent and flexible lifestyle.

. . . So far, so good! This time last year, I officially incorporated my own consulting business and I’ve been busy on great projects ever since, working with big-name clients, making new connections, and sharpening my skill set.

Drawing upon hindsight, she then offers ten points reflecting upon her experience:

1. “Life on the other side is not as scary as you think.”

2. “You have to stick to your guns.”

3. “There are more options than you ever thought possible.”

4. “You can easily live on less money than you think.”

5. “New opportunities will appear from nowhere.”

6. “It doesn’t have to be perfect from day one.”

7. “Nothing is forever.”

8. “You are not alone.”

9. “You’ll never have all the answers.”

10. “Not all who wander are lost.”

Lindbergh offers explanations for each statement, and it’s worth checking out her full piece to read them.

The escape route

Many folks discover this blog because of their experiences with workplace bullying and abuse. Long-time readers know, however, that I resist touting one-size-fits-all fixes. Each work situation has its own individual dynamics, rendering easy advice dangerous, especially when issued from an online perch. That said, for some the exit option is the most viable one. It should be weighed carefully.

Back in 2011, I wrote about the “Should I stay or should I go?” question for folks in bad work environments:

When should you hang in there, and when should you pursue an exit strategy? This question confronts a lot of people who feel stuck in frustrating or even toxic work situations. And given the realities of a tough job market, the dilemma of what to do becomes even more pronounced.

In that post, I offered insights inspired by entrepreneur Seth Godin and the rock band The Clash, as well as more concrete suggestions about thinking through one’s options. To these points, I add this one: One of the most recurring regrets that I hear from targets of severe workplace bullying is that they didn’t remove themselves quickly enough from bad work situations, even as the abusive behaviors kept mounting. Among the costs was that it became much harder to pick up the pieces afterward, including developing options for moving forward with their livelihoods and careers.

It doesn’t appear that Anna Lundberg walked away from a toxic job. Her decision seems to have been grounded in a desire to change the direction of her life in a more positive way. Thus, the sunny tone of her piece understandably may not resonate with someone who is feeling trapped in a terrible workplace. It’s pretty damn hard to be optimistic about your future when you’re being emotionally pummeled. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that walking away from one job for any reason will lead to something better.

But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.

Additional resources

Those considering their exit options may want to review the Need Help page of this blog, which, among other things, collects a variety of blog posts that can help to clarify the decision making process.

 

Servant leadership in the contemporary workplace

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Imagine a world where most leaders see their roles as serving their constituencies, imbued with a sense of the broader good, rather than simply adding bullet points to their resumes in preparation for the next climb up the greasy pole. Imagine professional cultures where ambition and the desire to advance in our careers are balanced with values of care and responsibility.

How can we grow leaders who hold themselves to these higher standards?

Massachusetts educator and organizational consultant Steven Lawrence is an emerging voice on the virtues of servant leadership, a topic that deserves much greater attention. In an essay posted to his Ground Experience site, Steve introduces servant leadership by citing the seminal work of the late Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics:

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

…Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second. Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large. They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

My connection with Steve has been through our common interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying. He discussed servant leadership in this context at the Workplace Bullying Workshop that I hosted last fall in Boston. Suffice it to say, the presence of more servant leaders in our workplaces would sharply reduce the prevalence of bullying and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment on the job.

I find the concept of servant leadership to be enormously appealing and life affirming, especially amidst professional cultures where raw ambition, private agendas, and naked ideology too often prevail. As a denizen of the academic workplace, I have witnessed and experienced the destruction wrought by self-serving administrators and board members. Looking at academe from a distance, one might visualize it as an idyllic work setting, fostered by leaders who share a love of learning, research, and ideas. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, servant leadership is increasingly rare in higher education.

So herein lies the rub: For more servant leadership, you need the presence of — yup — more servant leaders. To me this means that the philosophy and practice of servant leadership should be part of the training and orientation of future and present leaders. This doesn’t require us to cast aside our career goals and aspirations. Rather, we should treat opportunities to lead as privileges that enable us to make a difference, guided by a spirit of service.

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

Last week I invoked the writings of philosopher Charles Hayes to consider how the ripple effects of our good works can positively impact the world, perhaps in ways we will never know. I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….

First, some definitions may be in order here. By “hoop jumping” I refer to schooling, credentialing, networking, and gaining initial experience. These steps take us to where we’d like to be; they position us. (This is why it is rare for a post-graduate first job to be a true “dream job.”)

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Some people jump through their requisite hoops early, completing the heart of their formal learning at a relatively young age, promptly engaging in the necessary networking and positioning, and embarking on a long-term career that brings them much satisfaction. Certainly there may be setbacks and diversions along the way, but they start building their body of legacy work fairly early in life.

For many others, however, that process will include stops and starts, ups and downs, and recasting that often requires jumping through new hoops. A career is rarely completely linear, moving irresistibly upward until we reach some pinnacle and then retire. Furthermore, opportunities to do meaningful work, especially that which may fall into the legacy category, do not necessarily build toward some big crescendo close to the end. Whether they are handed to us or we create them, we rarely have full control over timing and sequencing!

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I realize that I have been talking mainly in the context of careers here. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested before, one’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Over the years, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. With some people, the discovery of legacy work has actually been a re-discovery, marking a return to interests and passions they put on the shelf in years past.

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Let me also acknowledge the sense of great economic and social privilege implicit in what I’m writing about. Those of us who are in a position to devote a good chunk of our waking hours to endeavors that provide satisfaction, meaning, accomplishment, and even joy are very fortunate. Countless millions of people around the world do not have that luxury; they are living in survival mode.

I hesitate to characterize such blessings as constituting a finger wagging obligation to make the most of them and to contribute something good to the world. That said, we live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

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Looking at the tortoise and the hare folktale, I personally identify more with the tortoise, at least when it comes to this general subject. In fact, I look with admiration at those folks who have figured things out much earlier than I did. I started this blog in 2008, over twenty years into my career as a lawyer and law professor. I now understand that it took me that long to forge a sufficiently wise, authentic, and mature worldview to start writing for a more public audience on the topics that frequent these pages.

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives

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Home-brewed philosopher and writer Charles D. Hayes is one of my favorite contemporary thinkers. His 2004 book, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning, is an unsung classic. Yesterday he published a blog piece, “Life’s Purpose: Ripples,” that I’d like to share with you. Here’s a snippet:

If you ask people how they would like to be remembered, you will likely be met with silence, often with a look of bewilderment. Legacy is not something that most people give a lot of conscious thought to apart from material bequests. Psychologically though, at a deep subconscious level, how and for what we will be remembered is far important than many of us realize. For some of us this becomes clear as time passes.

…One of the most inspiring writers I’ve encountered on the subject of mortality is Irvin D. Yalom, author of Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Yalom is a highly regarded psychiatrist who has ventured farther than most into the figurative thicket of mortality.

…Yalom says of all of the ideas emerging from his practice none has been as powerful as the idea of rippling. He describes rippling as concentric circles of influence that we generate, often without being aware of what we are doing. These ripples become our legacy, and the ways we can spawn them are practically endless, bringing us back to time as a relentless taskmaster and as an overtly constraining force governing our very existence.

I recommend reading Charles’s piece in its entirety. It’s a quick, wise read, by one of our most thoughtful writers about the human condition.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about notions of “legacy work,” “body of work,” and the “butterfly effect.” This idea of rippling complements those concepts in the best of ways. It means that our good works — paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time, in virtually any setting — can make a positive difference in the world, perhaps in ways we will never know or see.

If you’d like to read more along these lines, here are some past posts for your consideration:

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?) (2011)

Two tales of the Times

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Two articles published in last Saturday’s New York Times drive home a pair of contrasting narratives about aging and retirement prospects in the United States. One paints an idyllic picture of retirees who have the flexibility and financial resources to engage in adult learning activities for pleasure and intellectual company. The other details the challenges facing women who became unemployed in their 50s during the Great Recession and who have struggled to find work since then.

Back to school (for the fun of it)

In “In School for the Sake of Keeping the Mind Stimulated,” Harriet Edleson opens with the story of a retired couple, both 68, who are enrolled in an advanced adult learning program for personal enrichment:

JOSH AND SUSAN FRIED attend classes three days a week but they never receive any grades or cram for midterms or finals. They are not trying to earn an additional degree or retrain for a new career.

. . . Dr. Fried retired from his dental practice eight years ago and moved with his wife, Susan, a former English teacher, to Rockville, Md.

. . . The Frieds are among the 150,000 men and women nationally who participate each year at more than 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. . . . Along with an array of other such programs fitting under the “lifelong learning” umbrella, they tend to attract educated, passionate people who are seeking intellectual and social stimulation among peers who often become new friends.

These adult education programs can be like going back to school, but without final exams and term papers. According to Edleson, these “lifelong learning programs position themselves as communities where the participants not only take on challenging subjects but also seek to engage more deeply with their fellow students.”

As I’ve written before, later-in-life transitions aren’t limited to immersing one’s self in books and ideas that may have escaped post-adolescent attention spans many years ago. Still other empty nesters, near-retirees, and retirees are creating “encore” careers that allow them to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community.

Overall, for those in good physical and financial health as they grow older, the present and future are bright. For guidance, they can access a growing body of self-help and personal development literature and online content detailing how to maximize life’s second half. The choices are and will continue to be plentiful.

Searching for work at fiftysomething

In “Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work,” Patricia Cohen opens with a different type of story, one of a woman in her fifties who has not worked since a 2007 layoff:

Laid off at the start of the recession from the diagnostic testing firm in Seattle where she spent more than three decades, [Chettie] McAfee, 58, has not worked since 2007.

. . . Ms. McAfee is part of a group that has found the postrecession landscape particularly difficult to navigate: women over 50.

. . . A new study on long-term unemployment from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the prospects for women over 50 darkened after the Great Recession.

. . . The employment picture has definitely improved since then, economists point out, and more older women have managed to return to work. Still, the waves from the recession, which ended six and a half years ago, continue to upend many people who were cast aside during and immediately after the storm.

Hard evidence of age discrimination against women helps to fill in the picture. Nancy Collamer, writing for Next Avenue, reports that a “National Bureau of Economic Research study, Is It Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs? , offers ‘robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.’”

Apples and oranges?

Concededly, we’re talking about two different age cohorts here, so I’m not suggesting there’s a direct comparison. But it’s noteworthy that one piece is touting the intellectual and cultural enrichment options available to retirees of sufficient means, while another is spotlighting the job hunting woes of a group 10 or 20 years behind them who, absent dramatic changes of fortune, will never have those choices.

In fact, a 2015 U.S. Governmental Accountability Office study on retirement readiness documents the limited retirement savings of retirees and workers in their mid-50s and older:

Many retirees and workers approaching retirement have limited financial resources. About half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA). According to GAO’s analysis of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit (DB) plan or nonretirement savings, to draw on in retirement . . . .

My own interests in these topics have been spurred by the effects of workplace bullying on middle-aged workers. While bullying at work is difficult to deal with at any stage of one’s life, it can be especially challenging for individuals who experience it later in their careers and lose their jobs in the process. Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest that middle-aged women, in particular, are vulnerable to bullying behaviors.

While some are examining how to help the  older, long-term unemployed, there are no easy answers. In the meantime, America’s huge wealth gap is heading into a more pronounced chronological dimension, separating those who can afford at least a relatively comfortable retirement from everyone else, with the latter group constituting a big share of the population.

Related posts

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

Wharton prof: When job hunting, organizational culture is key

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In an op-ed column for the New York Times, management professor Adam Grant (Wharton School, U. Penn.) urges job seekers to focus on organizational culture as a prime factor in conducting a job search:

When it comes to landing a good job, many people focus on the role. Although finding the right title, position and salary is important, there’s another consideration that matters just as much: culture. The culture of a workplace — an organization’s values, norms and practices — has a huge impact on our happiness and success.

Grant identifies “three fundamental issues” in assessing a workplace:

First is justice: Is this a fair place? Second is security: Is it safe to work here? Third is control: Can I shape my destiny and have influence in this organization?

It may be more important to eliminate the toxic workplaces first, suggests Grant:

It’s always tempting to look for a great culture, but since bad is often stronger than good and toxic behaviors wreak more havoc than positive behaviors breed joy, it’s probably wiser to first rule out the worst cultures.

Hard times, part 1

The worst of the Great Recession may be behind us, but few people can afford to be supremely confident about job security. Accordingly, how an employer deals with possible layoffs is telling. Grant draws a comparison:

Contrast the former Walmart chief executive Michael Duke, who slashed more than 13,000 jobs while raking in $19.2 million, with Charles Schwab executives taking pay cuts to avoid downsizing — and giving employees who lost their jobs a bonus when they were rehired.

That said, one might have to do a lot of homework, or raise some uncomfortable questions to potential future employer, to get an accurate read on an organization’s priorities when layoffs may be in play. Furthermore, because such decisions are usually more discretionary than policy-based, what happened before may not necessarily be predictive of the future.

Hard times, part 2

Grant does overlook one common, harsh reality: Sometimes people don’t have a choice of potential employers. A job offer presents itself, and other options are few. Grant leads his column with an anecdote related to a student at the prestigious Wharton business school, who is likely to have some degree of choice in terms of job opportunities. By contrast, especially if you’ve been underemployed, unemployed, or otherwise out of the labor force, obtaining full-time employment with decent pay and benefits may prove to be a challenging task.

In such cases, the choice may boil down to taking a position at a place that may not have the healthiest workplace culture versus passing on the offer in hopes of something better coming along. If you’re facing destitution or raiding your savings, it may be better to take the job, dig in, and do your best to succeed, while watching your back and keeping an eye trained on the job listings.

Nonetheless, Grant offers sound advice and thoughtful points on what’s important in seeking a new job. It’s a good, quick read.

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